Sunday, June 5, 2011
We chose this day for our visit to the Met because of a special program scheduled in conjunction with the 2011 Science Festival being held in New York this week. Two Nobel Laureats--Harold E. Varmus (Physiology of Medicine, 1989) and Roald Hoffmann (Chemistry, 1981)--and Met curator Kathryn Calley Galitz explored this painting—Jacques-Louis David's 1788 Portrait of the Lavoisiers--from the perspectives of science, politics, and art, with some feminism, philosophy, and social commentary thrown in, as well. Garrick Utley moderated the lively discussion, which mesmerized me and put Dick to sleep. So it goes.
The Lavoisier story in short—Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier was the father of modern Chemistry, and his wife was an able assistant to him and a talented artist who illustrated his scientific publications, although she was never given credit for her work at the time. Lavoisier was also an economist and a tax collector, and was fabulously rich—which enabled him to commission this life-size portrait and pay an extraordinary sum for it—twice what the king paid David to paint his portrait a few years earlier. Alas, just five years after the painting was completed, the Lavoisiers lost their aristocratic bourgeois heads to the guillotine.
A surprising highlight of our visit was a special exhibit of the work of fashion designer Alexander McQueen, entitled “Savage Beauty.” (No use of cameras was allowed for this exhibit—I pulled the pictures here from the web.) The show includes dresses and accessories designed by Alexander McQueen, presented in dramatic gallery spaces that include music and videos from his sometimes eerie and always theatrical fashion shows.
Most of the clothing in the exhibit looks like it would be dreadfully uncomfortable, and some of it is downright dangerous, but every piece is exceptionally creative and has exquisite workmanship. We don’t have a fashion design vocabulary, but we felt that many of McQueen’s dresses and accessories were made with the vision of transforming the wearer into a form of living sculpture or a piece of performance art.
One dress is made of ostrich feathers and microscope slides dyed red; another is made of razor clam shells. A flaring balsa wood skirt guarantees no one can get into your personal space, but all will watch you pass in awe. His Romantic Gothic pieces are surely inspired by Edgar Alan Poe. Constructed with slashed leather and feathers and bones, one even uses vulture skull bones as epaulets. Spikey metal collars and corsets resembling external rib cages (one even had a spinal column with a tail!) could be recycled for use in a torture chamber.
Just when we were thinking that McQueen was unsettlingly dark, we got to the Romantic Exoticism section of the exhibit, full of Japanese and Chinese-inspired creations, re-visioning traditional kimono and obi forms in layers of richly embellished and embroidered silk.
The exhibit ended with a hologram of a wisp of smoke twisting and expanding to eventually develop into Kate Moss wearing a diaphanous gown, billowing around her in as she spun slowly in the wind, then continuing to twist and disappear back into a wisp of smoke once again. It was a beautifully haunting image.
This was contemporary art that caught us by surprise and had a strong impact on both of us, though we are still puzzling over why exactly.